Siberian Survivors

Siberia, a severe, beautiful land. The place of my power, the place of my weakness. Unobservable vastness, limitless territory, the universe within the universe, the world within worlds. What is to be said about it? Is it possible to say something meaningful in the face of such space, enclosing unnumbered stories: stories of life, struggle, victory, and loss? It breathes with the air of serenity.

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The rural spaces there are hardly pastoral. There their very calmness, there is a threat. One in infinitely small amid Siberian landscape, lost in space, and at the same time meets oneself. Everydayness in Siberian rurality costs efforts to which the urban citizen is not accustomed. But it is natural for those who live there. They do not dramatize their living, they do not perceive it as struggle. They are survivors who do not take pride in being survivors.

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The first photograph: a girl on the shore of the Kluych River; the second photograph: the village of Anosovo on the shore of the Angara River, the house of Ded Gosha (“Grandpa” Gosha). Summer 2013

About My Research, Briefly

In 1961-62 the Bratsk Hydroelectric dam was constructed, inundating thirty-thousand square kilometers of agricultural land. My fieldwork site, the village of Anosovo, was brought to life in the process of relocation. It is situated on the shore of the Angara River in the Irkutsk province of Siberia. In my research, I draw from theories of affect, ruination, infrastructure, and new materialism, as well as literature on the consequences of dam construction and histories of Siberian development. Using ethnographic methods (participant observation and interviews), I examine the day-to-day interactions and “everyday economies” (Humphrey) in this human-made landscape. I also plan to work in the regional archive. I am a native speaker of Russian and I visited Anosovo in 2006 and in 2013; my connections there, including the contact with the local administration, have been established.

What does everydayness look like? What is the mundane and the spectacular in these settings? How does ruined infrastructure shape social practices? What is rural, and how does it relate to the urban? What is nostalgia and what is the sense of belonging to “imagined community” (Anderson)? The singularity of Anosovo tells us a very particular story, one about living and struggling, which unfolds in hundreds of places scattered throughout Siberia. The vast territories of Siberia are populated with peoples of diverse ethnicities, religions, languages and cultures, who live on the margins of urban life, in the post-Soviet edgelands. These places provide models for understanding why the persistence of Soviet histories still matter and how they are summoned as a politically powerful nationalist discourse: life there is navigated among the ruins of socialism. The actual rubble of Soviet projects defines the structures of feeling in abandoned places.

Around two thousand people were living in Anosovo at its heyday in 1970s. In 2014 the population was around six hundred. According to statistics the number of deaths outstripped births, making depopulation even more critical. During Soviet times, the state-owned timber industry employed local people, but over the course of the last twenty years, since the collapse of the USSR, there is no job security. People make do by hunting, fishing, and scavenging for rusty tractors they can sell for scrap.

Currently, the village of Anosovo has no hospital, nor police station or post office, and a big part of the year it is an isolated, inaccessible place, because there is no road through the forest, and the Angara river is not always passable, either by ice or by water.

So how do global transformations affect a rural settlement in Siberia? What practices of healing spring up in the absence of accessible regular medical institutions? What kind of religion do people practice there? How has the positionality of women changed? How do people survive? Anosovo is one of numerous places in Siberia and in Russia today, which challenge our understanding of an increasingly globalized and networked world.